The Norwegians have landed and have defeated the northern earls, brothers Morcar and Edwin, at Gate Fulford. Harold has marched north, gathering an army as he goes, to face his brother Tostig and King Harald of Norway as they unwittingly wait at Stamford Bridge for hostages and supplies to arrive from York.
Stamford Bridge crosses the River Derwent a few miles north of York and was far enough away from York to be of little further threat to the city. Harald, the King of Norway, with the somewhat inimitable reputation of being ‘hard to counsel’ and King Harold of England’s implacable brother, Tostig, had brokered a deal with the defeated leaders of York, that they would meet them with the agreed 150 hostages and provisions that were promised. On Monday, September the 25th, their men were camped on both sides of the river Derwent. It was a sunny day and they were enjoying the warm weather. But the promised supplies and hostages had not arrived, so Harald decided that he and his men would march to York to find out what had happened. They had just crossed the bridge when came the storm in a form of a dust cloud. The marching feet of thousands of infantry and horsemen could be seen, their glittering weapons and steel tipped spears, sparkling like shards of broken ice. Harold Godwinson and his army were approaching them along the road from York, about to fall upon them in a surprise assault.
There are a variety of versions of the prelude to the battle, what seems to be pretty conclusive is that unfortunately for the Norsemen, they had gone to Stamford Bridge to meet the English hostages without their mail, the very thing necessary for survival in a battle. The chronicles all agree that this was due to the warm and sunny weather and having defeated the Northern armies at Gate Fulford, they were certainly not expecting to have need of their armour so soon after their victory. Half of Hardrada’s forces were back at Riccall with the fleet, led by his son Olaf and Paul, the Earl of Orkney. Some of his men had been out rounding up cattle (Rex 2011) and were on the open ground on the west bank of the river when the scouts spotted Harold’s army approaching them. Marren (2004), in his book about the battles of 1066, describes the bridge by 11thc reckoning as being wide enough for the roads which reached the bridge, to go through it. This seems a reasonable reckoning seeing as the roads continue out to the Battle Flats and beyond. However, the initial phase of the battle was fought on the Western side of the river and not on the Battle Flats as previous historians have agreed. Blundell (2012), in his The Battle of Stamford 1066 AD: An Alternative Interpretation paper, postulates, convincingly, that the Norwegians were not lazing on the grass, enjoying the sunshine of that day, but actually on the march to York to see why the hostages had not turned up at the agreed place and time. Harald, fed up with waiting, had decided to take most of his army to York with him to find out what was going on, leaving a smaller unit rounding up cattle further out on the west side of the river.
Looking at the maps on Blundell’s website, you can see both armies as they come across one another. The larger English contingent (in red) are on their way to confront the invading army (in blue). The map that is called Map 6 but is actually map 4, gives a good indication of how the two armies would have come across one another. Imagine Harald’s surprise and confusion. Tostig had assured him it would take longer than days for Harold Godwinson to arrive with his army.
The Norwegian king must have been furious with Tostig and greatly shocked, for the Englishman had assured him that Harold’s army would take weeks to get there and not days. But Harold’s army is kicking up the dust on the road, less than a mile away as they crest the higher ground from Gate Helmsley. However, Harald has time to work out a battle plan. Tostig, however, pragmatically urges that they should run back to the ships, but Harald knows that they would be slain by the obviously overwhelming English numbers and his best tactic would be to stay and fight until the rest of his army arrive. He quickly despatches the best of his riders to hurry back to Riccall, which was roughly 16 miles away, and lines up his men in a circular shieldwall, having seen the mounted unit of huscarles in the vanguard.
According to Snorri Sturluson, Harold wanted to parley, offering his brother peace and his former earldom back, but Tostig refuses when he only offers Hardrada this witty comment, ‘7ft of ground for he is taller than most other men’. Other sources state that Harold came upon them on horseback and swooped down on the Vikings on the open ground of the west bank, catching them unawares. They cut them down, slashing and spearing them in their circular shieldwall.
Many of the sagas report the English use of cavalry, although there is some discrepancy by historians as to the validity of it. The English were generally thought to favour fighting on foot as infantry, riding to battle and then dismounting. However, this battle would not have been the first time the English had fought on horseback as they did, somewhat disastrously at the battle of Hereford. It seems reasonable to believe that if Harold and his huscarles were journeying on horse, and saw the Norwegians before them, he would order a cavalry-type charge at them successfully. After all, he had learned about cavalry warfare during his time in Normandy as a guest of Duke William.
In Map 7 which is actually map 5, we see how the English forces are able to wrap the Vikings up and the men out rustling the cattle are cut down, as a unit is deployed to go after them. The shieldwall is broken but Harald and his Norwegians are are stalwart and storm to reform it to fight on.
Snorri Sturlusson’s Heimskringla is a very detailed account of the battle, however, being written down some 160 years after events happened, some historians are sceptical, but Blundell’s exploration of the topography of the battlefield and in depth study of the sources gives credence to the Sagas. However, it seems unlikely that Harold would have made his offer of Northumbria to Tostig, knowing that if Tostig accepted, Harold would incur the wrath of his new brothers-in-law and the men of the north, who had fought hard to get rid of Tostig. They may have been disillusioned by the brothers Morcar and Edwin who failed to avert the disaster at Gate Fulford, but doubtless they would not have been happy to have Tostig back in the seat of his earldom, either. Harold may have offered him part of Wessex, which I would think was more likely. Whatever was offered, if indeed there was an offer, it wasn’t what Tostig wanted.
The death of Hardrada comes after he had bravely fought to reform his men into the shieldwall. They are still on the West side of the river and both sides are taking great casualties. They were pushed right back by the English along the river just by the bridge and the river is right behind them. Hardrada ordered for his banner, the black raven, ‘Landwaster’ to be brought forward and he ran out ahead of his men in a mad charge like the one he had led at Fulford, hoping to repeat his victory as he had done then. But his huge torso was unprotected, wearing only his blue tunic, and he was hit by an arrow in the throat, though not before he had hewn and sliced many men with his Dane Axe. Those that had followed his charge died with him and there came a pause in the fighting. The great Norwegian King had choked on his blood and died. As everyone took time to take it all in and perhaps remove Harald’s body to a place of safety, the English Harold offered quarter to his brother and the beleaguered Norwegian troops, but they refused. It must have been devastating to Harold to know that he was about to lose his brother definitively.
Buoyed by the death of the Viking king, the English are fierce and brutal in their subsequent attack. In Map 8, (map 6) we see how the English army have now pushed the Norwegians back over the bridge. They bring Hardrada’s body with them and Tostig is said to take up the command, and Harald’s flag. They have taken a lot of casualties.
The most singular feature of this battle is the story that the bridge was held for some time against the English by a somewhat fearsome Viking with an axe who prevented them from crossing, killing any man who attempted to attack him. According to one source he kills 40 Englishmen singlehandedly. He was wearing a mail shirt, obviously one of the few who had decided to bring his. However though, after holding them back heroically, preventing thousands of the English from getting across the bridge, a quick-thinking Englishman waded under the bridge and spears him up through his under carriage and the English are free to cross the bridge. This story is the stuff of legend and is added to Chronicle C in the 12thc, interesting ly enough, and it is also repeated by several other writers. However, looking at it logically, one man on a bridge as wide as the road? Seriously, I would have shot him with an arrow within seconds, never mind trying to get a spear upwards and into his gizzards from underneath a bridge! And was this spearman really quick-thinking? Took him long enough, they lost 40 men before they decided to decimate him. Anyway, following the death of the lone axeman on the bridge, the English then went quickly over the bridge, to fight the Norwegian army. I really don’t give this story credence and feel that it is the object of a romantic, vivid imagination and none of the Sagas mention this. If it really did happen, I believe there would be some mention of it. It makes for a great story, though, the crazed, battle maddened Norwegian berserker! But no, he would have easily been taken down on that bridge.
Tostig is now in charge, however the death of Harald Hardrada must have had a devastating effect on morale. It was he they had come to fight for, not Tostig, but the exiled Godwinson was all that they had left. But Tostig dies and his body fell near the Landwaster. At this point, they were soon to have another commander, Eystein Orri, as the reinforcements came pouring in from Riccall, exhausted from running several miles and dusty and sweating from the heat and their heavy mail. This last phase of the battle was to become known as ‘Orri’s storm’ They may have seen them coming and perhaps this was why they refused quarter, and they made one final devastating charge at the English, many of whom were killed in the fresh onslaught. Such was the rage that the Norwegians felt at having ran for miles to find that their leader was dead. Such was their desire for revenge that they fought valiantly, some having to throw off their mail because they were so exhausted. But the Vikings were unable to maintain the momentum. Orri fought to the death as had Tostig. Some collapsed, fatigued by the stress of the battle and the harrowing journey on foot from Riccall.
The Norse poet Arnor later tells us:
It was an evil moment
When Norway’s king lay fallen;
Gold inlaid weapons
Brought death to Norway’s leader.
All King Harald’s warriors
Preferred to die beside him,
Sharing their brave king’s fate,
Rather than beg for mercy.
Some of the enemy survivors made their escape and were pursued by the English and given no quarter when it had been already twice refused. No prisoners were taken. The fleeing Norwegians, and we must not forget the Flemings that had come with Tostig, were chased back to the fleet where, as darkness fell the English ‘fiercely attack them from behind until some of them came to ship, some drowned, and also some burnt, and thus variously perished, so that there were few survivors, and the English had possession of the place of slaughter’ (Anglo Saxon Chronicle D). The author of the chronicle then went on to say that Harold rounded up the survivors and offered them safe conduct if they would swear oaths before him to leave this land and keep the peace of these islands. Amongst these was King Harald’s son, Olaf, who did as he was bid, promising never to return with hostility to these lands. He and their Bishop and Earl Paul of Orkney were sent home with only 24 of the 300 ships they had sailed with. Such was their loss of men that only 24 were needed to carry them home. It must have been a traumatic turnaround of events for the survivors that they should come so far for a great victory at Fulford, only to have their hopes of success dashed within a few days. The great God of War, Hardrada, had proved himself to be destructible after all. The big man’s luck had run out at last. Thus the Lightning Bolt was never to light up the sky again.
This was the last time that Scandinavian forces would attempt an invasion on such a massive scale. This was the end of the Viking threat to England, but their bones would lay scattered over fields in Yorkshire, visible to the travellers eye, for some years to come after this year of 1066.
Blundell, Michael C. 2012. The Battle of Stamford Bridge 1066 A.D.: An Alternative Interpretation. URL http://www.stamford-bridge.dk
Marren P (2004) 1066 The Battles of York, Stamford Bridge & Hastings Pen and Sword books Ltd, Yorkshire.
Morris M (2012) The Norman Conquest Hutchinson, London.
Rex P (2011) 1066 A New History of the Norman Conquest Amberley Publishing, Gloucestershire.
Swanton M (200) The Anglo-Saxon Chronichles (rev. ed) Phoenix Press, London.